Boundless Way Zen

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Absolute and Instrumental Zazen

by Josh Bartok

Tonight I’d like to talk about what we are doing and not doing in zazen. I’m going to give two views: a view of zazen from the relative side and from the absolute side; another way of saying this is views from an instrumentalist perspective and from an ultimate Buddha-nature perspective. As with all things in Zen, the relative and the absolute are two sides of the same thing. This is what we are acknowledging with the gesture of gassho. This is what we are manifesting with the act of zazen itself, with life itself. There aren’t two things.
Part of what happens in Zen practice is that you become increasingly able to hold both this and not this, to hold both sides of a paradox without needing to resolve it into one side or the other, into definitely this side or definitely the other; in fact, it’s sometimes one, sometimes both, sometimes neither—and sometimes we don’t know. The curriculum of koan study as we practice it, but also practice of dokusan in general, is going to be training you in moving back and forth between the relative and the absolute. Part of what we start to naturally experience is the wholeness, completeness, encompassingness this moment, without a preference for absolute or relative—although, of course, we continue to have preferences that arise.
The instrumentalist view is that zazen does something. And it does in fact do something. In beginning instruction I talk about what we’re doing when we come into the zendo and practice zazen on the cushion, that this is like going into a batting cage and practicing our swing, or sitting down at the piano and practicing a new piece of music. We’re developing a skill. The skill we’re developing is opening the hand of thought. Another way of thinking about it is that we are practicing unhooking ourselves from our habitual patterns of grasping, aversion, and delusion; of pushing away, pulling towards, and believing the stories we constantly tell ourselves.
Minds habitually move because of all the patterns we’ve laid down, the habitual karma that we’ve created with the way have been using our minds. One way of thinking about karma is that it’s like wearing a groove, a kind of rut in the mindstream. The more often we use our mind or our speech or our action to go over the same pattern, the deeper that groove gets and the steeper the slope into it becomes, the more easily we fall into it. The practice of zazen is kind of popping back out, unhooking ourselves from the habit patterns of grasping, aversion and story-telling.
We practice in this circumstance where it’s easy. We sit down, we go into the batting cage and we focus on just this thing so that in our non-zendo life when, as is inevitably going to be the case, our karmic habit-patterns manifest and we get sucked into anger or grasping or our thoughts start to become opaque, we have a skill we can draw upon. We can use the same skill that we’ve been practicing and we can notice, “Ah!...anger is present,” rather than acting out that anger, buying into its angry story. When we notice it, when we’re able to be vigilantly aware of the arising of greed and anger and ignorance, we’re able to be choicefully present. We’re then able to choose what we do as opposed to just acting out karmic habit-patterns, the impulses and dispositions that we’ve created with our minds. We start to inject a moment of freedom, a moment of choice. Being choicefully present is a huge part of what this practice is for. Having this moment of choice, having this moment of freedom to choose how we respond is part of this instrumental view of zazen.
The other part is choosing to respond compassionately, from our aspiration to cause as little harm as possible, to continually cause less harm, less harm, less harm; to create less suffering for ourselves, less suffering for the people around us and interdependently connected to us. Also we respond from our aspiration to serve and save all beings. When we’re able to be choicefully present we’re able to choose more skillfully how to apply our energy. The precepts are guidelines for ten common circumstances that you may find yourself wanting to choose between. For instance, the guidelines suggest that you choose to affirm life rather than extinguish it, whether literally or in a more metaphorical way.
There’s another way of looking at the instrumental view of zazen. There’s a common image in Buddhist writing of the waves on top of the water. Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind says, “…the wave is the practice of water.” There is a way in which this describes what goes on in our minds. We see the waves of the water. It is not at all the case that the goal of zazen is to still those waves, to silence the mind. You don’t need to stop the waves from happening. And yet, through just sitting and settling down, the waves may naturally still, and that’s fine. There’s even a potential value to that. When the waves settle down a little you can see farther down into the depths.
The waves are also images of all of the mental formations – our new translation of the Heart Sutra calls it mental reactions but it’s more useful to think of them as mental formations, mental phenomena, the mental formations of beliefs, thoughts, personality structures. All of them are the practice of the water, what the mind produces. They are all –to use the technical Buddhist term for it – empty. What that means is that there isn’t a thing that is the wave that is separate from the water. It’s just an arising, the expression of the water like that.
What that we do practically in our zazen is to just see whatever comes, whatever arises in your mind, to see that as a mental formation, a mental dharma. To recognize a mental dharma as a mental dharma, to recognize phenomena as phenomena, is actually really liberating. You don’t have to get caught by the specific content of it because getting sucked into the content of mental phenomena is a narrowing kind of thing. That’s what happens when our thoughts become opaque and all I see is, “I am SO ANGRY!” We see the story and we’re telling ourselves about it. Or it could be our anxiety or lustfulness or belief that we’re deeply flawed. All of those things are examples of mental dharmas that may arise.
This is a gesture that I often use, the open hands above which I show thoughts arising like bubbles—and what I’m showing here is holding open-handedly the vast ocean of space that is our true self, reality itself, this. Within it, things arise and pass away. One of the things that arise for us is a belief that we are other than the things that arise for us. That’s just a belief, exactly like any other, exactly like an itchy nose. When the waves settle, you get a sense of all this depth, there’s insight. It’s not like you need to get it and hold onto it, not like you really get anything that you can hold, but when there is even a slight moment of stilling, that changes what you know about the waves, about the surface of the water. It isn’t just the surface, it isn’t just the phenomena.
One of the roles of insight, as I see it, is as an antidote to doubt. The thing that we doubt is the perfection of things as they are, which is another name for Buddha-nature. The thing that we doubt is that there is freedom amidst suffering. This is not freedom from suffering, because freedom from suffering makes it sound like you can somehow get away from suffering, and you can’t at all, as I’m sure all of you can verify. One of the things to be vigilant to is the way in which you’re secretly trying to use your practice to get away from suffering. That will fail, minimally at the time of death, but also repeatedly throughout your life. The problem isn’t that you can’t be free of suffering at all, it’s that you can do it a little bit. And because through force of will you can actually suppress or repress your experience of suffering and you get that moment where you’re not distracted by it, you think, “That must be it.” And then you mistakenly conclude that practicing more is somehow going to mean having more of those moments, or better yet, one continuous moment in which you’ve suppressed all of your experience of suffering.
Actually zazen and Zen practice and the Dharma life is about less and less of pushing away. That’s a form of aversion, that kind of pushing down. It’s also a form of clinging, clinging to this other thing over there, this other experience, that we want. A Dharma life is about letting more and more in, letting all of our experience in, all of the suffering of the world in, and being undestroyed, and being free even as that’s happening. Even amid our own suffering, our body’s wracking pain, our life falling apart, our own old age, sickness and death, separation, loss, change of everything we love, loss of the ones around us – being present to that and free within it. This just means we’re receiving the universe, this moment, and our self, exactly as it is.
If you have insight into the fact that there are just these things arising in this vast mindspace, then when you see a thing, you can remember it’s just a thing. That helps you de-center from it, open the hand of thought in response to it, unhook yourself from its story. That is part of the role of insight. And yet, in another important way, insights are totally side-effects. They are not at all what we’re going for, here in Zen as we talk about it in Boundless Way.
One of the things that students of Zen can often feel is that they aren’t getting the real meditation instruction. That isn’t actually the case. There are ways involving detailed meditation instruction that can ultimately liberate you from suffering, but we use another means, and part of that means is throwing us all with insufficiently clear instructions onto the experience of thusness, of this, of being, of ourselves. To encounter without thoughts of gaining, or to encounter our thoughts of gaining. To encounter our striving with nothing to strive for.
My high school art history teacher, when we were talking about Gauguin, said it isn’t that Gauguin couldn’t draw “better” if he wanted, it’s that his art is something else. And it isn’t the case that we have lost the instruction manual for your mind in the Zen tradition, it isn’t the case that we have failed to transmit the actual practice of meditation, it’s that going in with just these instructions to be intimate with yourself, to start with the practice of the breath, to return over and over to just this – that’s actually the practice. Even the “returning” and the breath eventually go somewhat out the window as we move into the so-called advanced practice of just sitting, shikantaza, which is actually a practice of even less instruction.
I’m going to read about two pages total selected from a book called Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains by Reb Anderson. Reb Anderson is a dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki. This is from a chapter called, “A Ceremony for the Encouragement of Zazen.” This chapter is one of my favorite pieces of writing. This is the non-instrumentalist view of zazen, the view from the Buddha-nature perspective, the Absolute perspective, the perspective of no-self. But no-self, I want to be clear, isn’t an attainment or a special condition. It is this state that you are exactly all in, right now in this room.
Zazen is the source of all the teachings and practices of the Buddha way. Although the word zazen literally means sitting in concentration, it is not limited to concentration practice. All enlightenment concentration practices emanate from and return to zazen. Here, one's mind is concentrated without relying on any contrivance and is not necessarily continuously focused on any particular object. There are concentration practices and if one is practicing thus, zazen is just being upright and unmoving in the midst of such a practice. If we are not practicing concentration, it is just sitting still in the middle of not practicing concentration. It is simply pure presence untouched by all human agency.
This sounds like the way that Shinron, the founder of the Shin Pure Land sect talks about how you cannot achieve salvation, you cannot achieve enlightenment by any of the machinations of your mind, by anything that is your effort.
Many people attempt to concentrate their minds and, according to their own definition, are unsuccessful. Practicing concentration in this way often leads to feelings of frustration and upset. Even if one is successful in achieving concentration by personal effort, the mind is still somewhat disturbed by such striving. In Buddha's meditation there is no such striving. Giving up the desire to pacify the mind, pacifies the mind….
Although concentration practices may be wonderfully beneficial and develop great mental skill, trying to concentrate on some object like the breath may activate a gaining idea. Gaining ideas are antithetical to the whole project of Mahayana Buddhism, which is to be concerned for other's welfare rather than our own self-improvement. However, we may not realize this right from the start of our practice. As long as we are engaged in a self-improvement meditation we continue to be trapped in our selves. When we are free of self-improvement projects, we are free of our self.
So this activated gaining idea is what Barry Magid calls the “curative fantasy”, your idea about how zazen will somehow fix you.
Such practice may help us to forge a strong enough container to tolerate a non-gaining approach to meditation.
I think the Zen school would lose a lot of followers if we started right from the beginning with “There’s no practice. There’s nothing to do.” Okay, I’m going home! So we start with something else. We start with breath practice and instruction. One of the roles of liturgy in general is to remind you that there’s something else. Even when we’re saying there’s nothing, there’s still this other thing that you don’t understand. For me that was a very strong goad, a strong pull inward, not letting myself off the hook. “Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form,” what the hell does that mean??  Until that’s clear to you, stick with it. Although once it’s clear to you, you’ve got nothing.
The zazen I speak of is neither concentration practice nor not concentration practice. Zazen does not prefer success over failure. Zazen does not prefer enlightenment over delusion. If we are enlightened, we sit still in the middle of enlightenment with no preferences for it. If we are deluded, we sit still in the middle of delusion with no aversion to it. This is Buddha's zazen.
The real danger of the arriving of any kind of enlightenment, any insight, any peace of mind, is that we start to develop a preference for it. We prefer to feel this way. But remember, all of these insights, all of these states of mind and body, enlightenment itself, satori – all of these are side effects. Sometimes we may think, if only we could just remember That Insight we just had and just always and unchangingly be with that… – but that’s actually practicing aversion, perhaps aversion to confusion. Sometimes clarity is here, sometimes it’s not.
Zazen doesn't start when we start making effort, doesn't stop when we stop. However, when practicing zazen, there is complete mindfulness and we may very well notice we are breathing.
I want to say that this is an interesting usage of complete mindfulness. The complete mindfulness that he’s talking about is not in fact a special state of mind.
It's not that our ordinary awareness isn't going on, it's just that the practice does not abide in and cannot be defined by the things we are aware of at the moment.
The practice of zazen doesn’t abide in any mental phenomena, any mental formation, any experience you’re having. That is not zazen. Zazen is way way bigger than all those. It’s none of your ideas about it. It’s infinitely bigger.
In the beginning, people usually want to have some activity to do, so they are given something to do. However, the zazen of our school is not something you can do.
Isn’t that accommodating of us? Sure, you want something to do? Well… count your breath. There you go. And that’s a practice of generosity. In the koans it’s called “grandmotherly kindness.” It’s also called “putting your head on the chopping block.” As soon as you open your mouth to give instruction, you’ve already made a mistake. And yet… and yet….
Strictly speaking, awakened Buddhist meditation is not an action done by a person, it is not another form of doing, not another form of karma. It is the function of enlightenment, the concerted activity of the entire universe.
“…awakened Buddhist meditation is not an action done by a person”. It isn’t something that you do. It isn’t in the sphere of anything to do with you. It’s the universe doing the universe. In the same way, the ocean isn’t in the sphere of things a wave can do.

The physical posture reflects our participation in the ceremony [he’s talking about zazen as a ceremony in itself], and our participation in the entire universe. …
Zazen practice is selfless. Its meaning, the enlightenment and liberation of all living beings, is not brought forth by the power of personal effort and is not brought forth by the power of some other. We can't do it by ourselves, and nobody else can do it for us.
And you can’t screw it up. And you can’t do it poorly. And you can’t do it well. And you can’t not be doing it. And you can’t be doing it worse today than you did last time you sat on a cushion. All of these things, no-self emptiness, Annutara-samyak-sambodhi, the waves and the ocean – all of these are just pointings at thusness. Even pointing at thusness is misleading. By pointing, we are communicating “here it is.” But it’s also not here, it’s over there. It’s also the finger that’s pointing, and it’s also the space behind the whole hand.
Again I want to emphasize that there aren’t two kinds of mental formation, there aren’t two kinds of mental phenomena, there aren’t two kinds of things that arise in the mind, in the life you experience in your practice. There’s not the kind you let go of, that comes and goes, and then “the good kind”—whatever we’ve decided the good kind is, in this particular round of the game we play with ourselves.
There isn’t an experience that we treasure and revere and hold onto. There isn’t an experience you strive after, and attain once and for all—and then you win because you’ve got it. One time, one of the encouraging words in the middle of sesshin at Zen Mountain Monastery came from the Vice Abbot, who said to us, “Let go of your precious Zen practice.” I have an image of Gollum from Lord of the Rings: “My precious! My Zen practice! My insights! My precious!” We all have that tendency.
Even satori, kensho, enlightenment itself, Annutara-samyak-sambodhi, complete unsurpassed enlightenment – even those are just phenomena. James’ teacher, John Tarrant, told him, “Even enlightenment is just another idea.” Our practice is to let come all that comes, to let go all that goes. But even the word “let” is in some ways far too much. And insights may come. Peace may come. Enlightenment may come. And especially when these things come, we still continually practice unhooking from our beliefs that now we’ve got it, once and for all. At the same time, the purpose of practice is threefold: to free ourselves amid our own suffering; to enable us by being vigilantly present, choicefully aware, to cause less suffering to others and to the world through our conditioned actions of grasping, aversion, and ignorance; and to serve and even save all beings everywhere throughout space and time.
If insights are doing anything else for you other than helping you actualize those three purposes, they are side-tracking you away from the real point of this practice. They can become very seductive traps. There’s a way in which insight itself is makyo. Makyo is any of those weird experiences you may have during meditation. It may be feeling like you are as big as the universe, feeling like you’re floating. It may be your heart pounding. It may be, as Charlotte Joko Beck says in her book Nothing Special, the ability to see through walls and see into the kitchen to find out what is being made for dinner. It may be the ability to read minds. It may relaxation and lovely feelings of bliss. All of those things are makyo. Makyo literally is the world of demons, in Japanese. If you attach to them, if you grasp and hold onto them they will pull you into the realm of preference, the realm of picking and choosing. That grasping is antithetical to being free amidst your suffering, because then what happens when it’s not there? If you use your practice to attain bliss, what about when you can’t? The Buddha’s zazen is available even then, even when you’re crazy, even when you’re depressed, even when you’re senile, even when your body is in devastating pain. Deep and less deep are just descriptions of these mental phenomena. Any description of that loses track of this, the foundation around it.
This also relates to the line in the koan that says, “In all of China there are no Zen teachers.” There’s nothing to be taught. And yet, this koan tells us, it doesn’t mean there’s no Zen. There’s an important way in which your zazen is the only true teacher, your life is the only true teacher. Your body and mind are the Buddha’s body and mind expressing themselves to you. And it’s also important to recognize that your zazen isn’t yours, your practice isn’t yours. It’s the universe’s. It’s the universe.
We’re returning to a paradox that we can open-handedly hold both sides of. Whatever your idea of practice is, there’s more. Keep at it. And yet, this idea of more, this idea that there is someone somewhere in the world with more than what you have, more insight than what you have, more perfection than you have – this idea too is a mental formation. What happens if we encounter that idea of deeper, of more, of Zen teacher, with the same equanimity that we encounter everything else? Please, everyone, find out.
Thank you, everybody.

Josh Bartok began his practice under the guidance of John Daido Loori, and lived for eighteen months as a monastic Zen practitiioner at Zen Mountain Monastery. He was James Ford's first shoken student in Boston, and also currently studies with Jan Chozen Bays at Great Vow Zen Monastery. He works as an editor at Wisdom Publications, and serves as practice leader (tanto) at the ZCB affliate Spring Hill Zen in Somerville.

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